When an employee becomes sick, has a disability or must take leave to support their family, they may be entitled to legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or both, in some situations. However, determining applicable laws for employees is complex and costly for employers due to potential penalties, fines, and legal fees.
While the ADA and FMLA support employees with physical or mental health conditions, they have different requirements. Employers must evaluate them carefully to correctly determine which legal protections extend to an employee’s situation. This article discusses ADA and FMLA, exploring their intersection to aid employers in compliance.
OVERVIEW OF THE FMLA
The FMLA is a federal law offering eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons. A private-sector employer becomes covered under FMLA when they employ 50+ employees for 20+ workweeks. In general, eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave yearly, which includes serious health condition treatment.
Employee Eligibility Requirements
To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must:
- Be employed by an employer covered by the law.
- Have worked for their employer for at least 12 months as of the date the leave is to start
- Have accrued at least 1,250 hours of service for their employer during the 12-month period before the leave Work at a location where their employer has at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius
Qualifying Reasons for FMLA Leave
An eligible employee may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for any of the following FMLA-qualifying reasons:
- The birth of a child or placement of a child with the employee for adoption or foster care, as well as the need to bond with the child within one year of birth or placement
- The treatment of a serious health condition that results in the employee being unable to perform the essential functions of their job
- The employee’s need to care for an immediate family member who has a serious health condition
- Qualifying exigency due to an immediate family member’s military service on covered active duty or call to covered active duty status.
A “serious health condition” is an illness, injury, impairment or physical or medical condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. The FMLA does not apply to routine medical examinations (e.g., an annual physical) or common conditions (e.g., an upset stomach) unless complications develop.
OVERVIEW OF THE ADA
The ADA makes it illegal for covered employers to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities in all employment practices, including recruitment, compensation, hiring and firing, job assignments, training, leave and benefits. Additionally, the ADA forbids employers from retaliating against applicants or employees asserting their ADA rights.. It’s also unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee, whether disabled or not, because of the individual’s family, business, social or other relationship or association with an individual with a disability. The ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees.
The ADA mandates covered employers to offer reasonable accommodations to disabled employees or job applicants unless it causes undue hardship. A reasonable accommodation enables a disabled individual to have equal job opportunities by modifying the work environment or customary practices. However, not everyone with a medical condition is protected by the ADA. To be protected, a person must be qualified for the job and have a disability as defined by the law.
Qualified Individuals With Disabilities
The ADA protects qualified individuals with disabilities from employment discrimination. Under the ADA, a person has a disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects individuals who have a record of a substantially limiting impairment and people who are regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment.
Major life activities include but are not limited to caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. A major life activity also encompasses the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions.
A qualified employee or applicant with a disability can perform the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation. Essential functions are the basic job duties an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. Factors to consider in determining if a function is essential include:
- The reason the position exists is to perform that function
- The number of other employees available to perform the function (or among whom the performance of that function can be distributed)
- The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function
HOW THE ADA AND FMLA INTERSECT
The ADA and FMLA can overlap in some situations, entitling employees to the legal protections of both laws. When an employee has ADA and FMLA coverage, the employer must grant both laws’ rights: 12 weeks of unpaid leave (FMLA) and reasonable accommodation for essential job functions (ADA).
These laws can overlap because they provide legal protection to employees with physical and mental health conditions and use similar terms, such as illness and disability. Due to their requirements, the ADA and FMLA intersect when an employer has 50 or more employees. For example, when an employee has utilized all their FMLA leave, they might qualify for added ADA protections, entailing extra leave, if they meet the criteria for a qualifying disability. Therefore, FMLA-covered employers must consider if and when the ADA factors into an employee’s FMLA-qualifying leave.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR NAVIGATING THE INTERSECTION OF THE ADA AND FMLA
Employers can consider the following strategies to help them navigate the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA:
- Consider each law’s purpose. While the ADA and the FMLA may provide distinct yet similar protections, considering each law’s purpose can guide employers as they navigate the intersection of these laws. For example, the purpose of the ADA is to help qualified individuals with disabilities gain access to the workforce; the FMLA offers employees leave from work for health or family reasons.
- Understand each law’s requirements. The ADA and the FMLA don’t cover the same employers. FMLA applies to employers with 50+ employees in a 75-mile radius. ADA covers employers with 15+ employees. Therefore, some employers will be subject to the ADA but not the FMLA. Moreover, understanding ADA and FMLA rights and requirements enables employers to assess employee situations and respond suitably. Employers must also consider their policies and state laws offering better benefits than ADA and FMLA.
- Evaluate an employee’s situation under each law separately. As ADA and FMLA requirements differ, employers should evaluate each law individually. The ADA defines ‘disability’ differently from the FMLA’s ‘serious health condition’. As a result, not all employees with an FMLA-qualifying health condition qualify as disabled under the ADA. Employers should consider an employee’s specific situation when determining which law applies.
- Apply the law that provides the most benefit. If the ADA and FMLA grant different rights in the same scenario, the employee gets the most beneficial option. An employee’s desires can also influence the outcome.
Navigating the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA can be challenging. However, understanding the laws’ overlap aids employers in complying, minimizing errors, and safeguarding employee rights.
Employers can explore these government resources for more information:
- The U.S. Department of Labor’s website on ADA compliance
- The Employer’s Guide to the FMLA, a publication from the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division
- The DOL’s website on FMLA compliance, including links to model forms
- The DOL’s website on medical- and disability-related leave
For more information on the FMLA and the ADA, or any other benefit questions, contact us to speak to a consultant. You can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn or here on the FBS Blog for more benefits education.